This Thanksgiving, I stayed home. My sisters-in-law came up, hung out at Casa de Shepherd, and it was great. I didn’t have to pack a carload of toys and diapers and safety devices. I didn’t have to get on the interstate. And I didn’t have to run into relatives I don’t often see, forcing me into obligatory smalltalk that generally leads to this statement on their end:”Oh right… a copy editor. Um… what exactly is that, again?”It usually takes me at least 3 minutes (an eternity in extended-family smalltalk time) to give a clear picture of my job — and the truth is, they probably enjoy listening to my spiel even less than I enjoy giving it. First I have to clear up the misconception that I get to make any real decisions. Then I have to explain that no, Spellcheck doesn’t quite eliminate the need for my job. Then I try to explain the elusive notion of “designing the page,” which is neither copying nor editing, and hence doesn’t really make sense to the listener (nor, admittedly, to me).So, just in case your niece or nephew ever chooses to become a copy editor, here are the Cliff’s notes.
- A copy editor edits the copy. Seems self-explanatory, but it isn’t, because nobody outside the newspaper business (and very few in it) use the word “copy” this way. Whose bright idea this was, I don’t know, but it just means “words.” I’m a WORD editor. Yes, it seems ridiculous when I put it that way. But it’s different than “proofreading,” which implies just looking for grammatical mistakes — in fact, I’d argue that’s the less-important part. The crucial part is making sure the articles a.) make sense, b.) accurately portray the subjects they’re covering, and c.) don’t have gaping holes, leaving the reader with unanswered questions. That’s a lot harder than proofreading, and there will never be a relative of Spellcheck that can do it.
- A copy editor designs the pages, at least at papers the size of this one. We multitask editing(primarily analytical) with designing (primarily creative). On the inside pages, it’s pretty simple: Put the stories in the holes where there are no ads, write a headline that makes sense (easier said than done), and try to find a way to fit a photo in there. On the front pages, though, we start with an essentially blank slate… there are a hundred ways to make it look bad, and astonishingly few practical ways to ensure it’ll look good. (My best days are when one of our worthy photographers hands me three or four wonderful pictures; I just toss ’em on the page, and fit the “copy” around them, and voila!)
- A copy editor is stressed out. Seriously. We need pieces from every department (news, photo, advertising) in order to do our job — when the reporter’s finished up and is walking down the street for a cup of coffee, we’re just getting started — and those pieces don’t always fit seamlessly together. So, just maybe, we’re the glue of the newsroom.
Whatever we are, we’re copy editors, and we’re too tired to explain it to you again.